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How to put on a festival from the comfort of your home

Agility, adaptability and upskilling are all part of the process, but gifs are important too. Lessons learned from Melbourne Fringe's first foray into presenting a festival digitally.
How to put on a festival from the comfort of your home Game Boys Comedy's GB24 The Improvised Variety News Channel at VCR Fest. Image supplied.

Caitlin McNaughton

Tuesday 1 September, 2020

At 2:45pm on Sunday 2 August, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews was on thousands of screens around the state announcing a state of disaster and a move to Stage 4 COVID restrictions. Meanwhile, on about 200 screens around Victoria, Melbourne’s favourite Nonnas-in-drag were lovingly cooking cotoletta and dancing to Lady Gaga. It was the final day of VCR Fest, Melbourne Fringe’s three-day digital festival and the test run for the two-and-a-half-week Melbourne Fringe Festival in November.

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‘Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong,’ said Simon Abrahams, Melbourne Fringe’s CEO and Creative Director. On top of the COVID-19 announcement, there was a huge Telstra outage that affected staff, artists and audiences, and myriad technical difficulties occurred throughout.

‘I reckon this is part of what made VCR Fest a huge success,’ Abrahams added. ‘The aim was to play with ideas and take big risks, while giving our new digital platform its first test drive. We took the lessons from day one and fixed them on day two. Day two threw up a whole new set of challenges that we resolved on day three. And by the end of day three we had an enormous list of things we will be fixing, reworking and building upon for the November Melbourne Fringe Festival.’

Consequently, we thought we’d share some of what we learnt in our first foray into putting on a festival in a pandemic.

You’ve got to be more agile and adaptable than ever

‘Festival staff are by their nature well-versed in rolling with the punches and adapting to circumstances, but 2020 is on a whole new level’ – Erin Muller, Head of Marketing and Development.

Like most organisations who run events and festivals, we’ve been planning and re-planning and re-re-planning since that fateful week in March, when the virus closed our venue, Fringe Common Rooms, just as it was about to officially launch, we all began working from home and the Australian arts sector started to face the reality of what was to come. Remember March?!

What’s that old Rabbie Burns quote? ‘The best laid plans of mice and arts orgs, often go awry when COVID-19 is involved?’ (Sorry Rabbie.)

Delivering a festival online (let alone in the midst of a pandemic) brought about a whole new world of challenges. The immediate nature of the internet means that everyone expects answers and updates right away, so decision-making and communication has to happen even more on the fly than usual.

So, in advance of November we’re laying our plans the best we can while being very aware that they could all go out the window at any minute.

We’re keeping artist registrations as flexible as possible, with extended timelines and no official deadline. We’ve spent months modelling and re-modelling the configurations of our rooms in Trades Hall (our tech team are sick of hearing ‘What would it look like if…?’). We’ve redirected most of our marketing resources to the online space (because print is much harder to edit, and we don’t want to go round the city with white-out). And, in terms of staffing, we’re bringing in digital experts and reworking existing jobs, and ensuring every role has an understudy or someone that can step in and take over at a moment’s notice.

People DO want to spend money on digital events

To be honest, we weren’t sure how this one was going to go. We have years of data on what audiences will spend on events in person during our Festival, but budgeting for VCR Fest was based on a lot of guess work and anecdotal evidence.

Most events in VCR Fest were Choose Your Price, where the audience could pay in the digital foyer after the show, with options ranging from $5-$100. Choose Your Price worked for us in lots of ways: it made attendance more accessible to audiences, allowing them to pay what they could afford, and people paying zero dollars were counteracted by those paying $100. Plus, it seemed to make people more forgiving of technical difficulties in general and took the pressure off our ticketing staff in terms of refund requests. From an artistic standpoint, it allowed for risk-taking and boundary pushing in the digital space.

On the flipside, a lot of people wanted the option to pay when they booked and found the ‘booking first, paying after’ process confusing – so we’re adding a pay-when-you-book option to the Choose Your Price model for the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

And now for some ticketing stats for the data nerds out there: the average ticket price for those who paid for Choose Your Price events was $18.20 per ticket and the average paid per attendee (including those who didn’t pay) was $7.25. The total ticket income was $13,300, an average of $1477.80 per event. Want more stats? They're here.

Prepare yourself. You’re still putting on a Festival, even if you’re sitting in a comfy chair

‘Running a festival online is pretty similar to running a festival IRL except you do way less steps’ – Dan Beacom, Marketing Campaigns Manager.

You know you’re at peak Melbourne Fringe Festival when you’re racking up 15,000 steps a day: running from a 5:15pm show at The Butterfly Club to a 6:30pm show at The Festival Hub with some signage to deliver on the way (and a 7-Eleven sausage roll to shove in your mouth en route).

Running a festival online from the comfort of your home, you’re racking up the same amount of mental stimulation and adrenaline without the physical outlet. At one point during the weekend I realised I hadn’t left my chair (or blinked, probably) for about five hours. Lots of us suffered from headaches and eye strain in the week following the three-day festival.

Probably the biggest learning from VCR Fest is this: prepare yourself mentally and physically. Schedule in your breaks, even if it’s a 10-minute walk around the block, or take meetings without video and whilst walking where possible. And don’t forget, it’s still a pandemic.

Use the opportunity to upskill but bring in experts if you can

‘It was like trying to build high-speed railway tracks whilst driving the train.’ – Ciaran Frame, Executive Assistant.

From a Zoom brainstorm on how we could recreate what’s special about our festival online – the community, the risk-taking, the social connection – to a proposal to our web developers and designers, Efront and Wolf, to a plan to add another mini-festival to the mix to stress test the platform, to a bunch of grant applications, to that realisation ‘Oh crap, now we have to actually do the work,’ we dreamed up and executed VCR Fest in a few months whilst simultaneously devising and creating our brand new platform, Digital Fringe.

VCR Fest called for Melbourne Fringe staff to pivot, adding a whole new list of words to our vocab like ‘pre-roll’ and ‘transcoding’ and ‘stream key’. We upskilled immensely and learnt on the job – and a big part of that was learning what we don’t know… so we’re bringing on board a new Broadcast Manager to broaden our expertise in the live-stream and audio-visual realm.

Gifs + theatre = the future? Discuss.

‘Why did it take this long for someone to let me have gifs with my theatre!’ – audience member.

I’ve forgotten how to communicate sans-gifs, emojis, reacts and memes. At Melbourne Fringe, we use Microsoft Teams, and it even allows you to create your own bespoke memes within the app. If this is the future of business comms, I’m here for it.

At VCR Fest, the digital foyer chat for each event popped off before and during events and it was a buzz to bump into the same people in the foyer at different shows during the festival. Aside from the obvious joy of being able to request songs via musical theatre gif during Marie’s Crisis, the chat centralised communications, with audiences helping each other solve tech problems and kept our Facebook messages, inbox and phoneline astonishingly quiet.

Adapt your Festival operations comms for working from home.

‘I really found myself missing the familiar radio chatter of live events. Everything was so…quiet’ – Ali Coad, Program Manager (Common Rooms).

During VCR Fest, daily ops meetings at 10am were ‘couch compulsory’. This was the first time some of us had seen each other’s lounge rooms, being so used to the standard workspace backdrop of the last five months. Most of us were just out of bed, coffee in our hands and weekend hoodies on.

In lieu of radios (outside of the small team at the venue) we had a Microsoft Teams ‘Ops’ channel, between the venue and the rest of us in our homes, from Melbourne to New Zealand. Show calls were familiar, with a twist. ‘Five mins till digital foyer open’. ‘Pre-roll up’. And when tech issues brought a particular show to a standstill: ‘Tell the audience to refresh!’ The ops chat was a strictly gif-free zone.

Think about whether your events are better as a live-stream or whether they should be pre-recorded.

‘…shows that do not feature a strong element of live audience interaction should probably be pre-recorded in one take. Internet quality is an access issue, and inclusiveness, as well as artistic integrity, feel more important than contemporaneity and ‘liveness’ – Cameron Woodhead, The Age.

All but one of the VCR Fest events were livestreamed, from Fringe Common Rooms, from Lou Wall’s bedroom and from the Sofitel Hotel. For a couple of the events, there were technical issues that wouldn’t have existed if they were pre-recorded – which raised the question, did they need to be live? What was added by the liveness?

If the work doesn’t involve any interactive elements, often the same thing can be achieved by presenting pre-recorded work, without the (let’s be honest, pretty huge) risk that technical difficulties will occur. On the other hand, we had lots of feedback that despite the technical difficulties, audience members enjoyed the sense of live theatre that they’d been missing. It’s harder for a pre-record to deliver those very human, very indie theatre moments that only the audience who were there on the night get.

Game Boys made the most of the live medium, creating what The Age called ‘digital magic’. They maintained an incredible liveness throughout the show, interacting with the audience chat, and working the state of disaster news into their show only an hour after it happened. La Nonna was pre-recorded, and the slick quality was noticeable. And even though the event itself was pre-recorded, the Nonnas made it feel like a one-off special experience by interacting with their audience in the foyer chat before and after the show.

‘Netflix already exists’

That's a quote from Harriet Gillies, from the Talking Digital Art panel.

This is really at the heart of what we’re aiming to do with Digital Fringe, as we look towards the Melbourne Fringe Festival in November. We’ll adapt our plans to whatever restrictions are in place come Festival time. At the moment, it’s looking like a lot of digital and other ‘pants off’ work. (If you haven’t heard, this is what we’re calling art that doesn’t require you to leave the house.)

That doesn’t mean we want to create a low production value version of Netflix. We have tested, learned, tested again and learned even more about what works and what doesn’t – and we’re now well-placed to put on a festival that delivers what our artists and audiences love about Fringe (and where we can learn even more to improve on Digital Fringe for next year’s Festival).

Through our digital platform we want to see our community engaging and connecting and our artists taking risks on what digital art can be. We want to create something that is slick, and easy to use, while feeling live and in-the-moment. We want rough-and-ready aesthetics, we want messy and challenging, the once-in-a-lifetime moments, the absolute highs and the absolute lows. We want Fringe art, pants or no pants.

The 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival runs from 12-29 November.

About the author

Caitlin McNaughton is an arts manager and festival worker from Aotearoa, living and working on the lands of the Kulin Nation. Prior to her current role as Communications and Partnerships Manager at Melbourne Fringe, she has worked at festivals across Australia and beyond, including Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival.